Shimon Gibson: Final Days of Jesus out in paperback

For Palm Sunday to Easter reading, I highly recommend the archaeological-historical point of view in Shimon Gibson’s masterful book, Final Days of Jesus, now out in a bargain-priced paperback. Its breakthrough insights and many contributions are not to be missed. Here is my complete review:

Shimon Gibson’s new book, Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (HarperOne) begins with a straightforward, provocative sentence that summarizes the whole quite nicely: “Who was Jesus, and what can archaeology tell us about him?” For the past 1800 years Christians have been traveling to the Holy Land with one burning desire–to walk where Jesus walked. Our earliest surviving pilgrimage account, the anonymous description of the “Pilgrim of Bordeaux,” dates to AD 333, and makes fascinating reading to this day. Although the heart of a pilgrim is filled with devotion, central to that celebration of faith is the idea that one arrives at the actual place and gazes upon, or even touches, what remains. It is this proximity of place, and this possibility of contact with the past, that fires the imagination and feeds the soul. The irony is, this is no less true for the historian and the archaeologist than the pilgrim. For the past 200 years scholars have entered this same arena, asking, in the words of the poet Carl Sandburg, “What is this place, where are we now?” In the Preface to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I relate my own experience on my first trip to the Holy Land at age 16. Even at that age I found myself asking, how do the holy places of 20th century Jerusalem connect authentically to the time of Jesus?  I remember buying a copy of the book, Where Jesus Walked, by Frank McCoy Field, at a little tourist shop, and devouring it each evening after a day of touring with our guide. The problem, of course, is one of time and tradition. So much has been altered, lost, forgotten, and distorted, especially since the Crusader period, when the basic Holy Week itinerary became fairly fixed for most visitors.

Gibson’s new book is not intended as a pilgrim’s guide to Jerusalem, but it goes a long way toward resetting the stage, for both pilgrim and historian, to consider anew his opening sentence–what can our surviving archaeological record tell us about Jesus? He rightly points out that material evidence can be as informative as our textual records, and should not be considered as “garnish” or mere “background” to our quest for the historical Jesus. Indeed, archaeology can substantially shape and change the way we read our Gospel accounts and shed significant new light on our understanding of Jesus.

What Gibson presents is new, fresh, and challenging, so much so that both specialists and general readers will find this book an indispensable companion-in-hand for wandering, either mentally or actually, the streets and landscapes of Jerusalem. The book is presented in an engaging “you are there” style, with much of the analysis based on Gibson’s own first hand experience as an archaeologist working in Jerusalem for the past 30 years. I consider Gibson’s work so important that I have made it required reading in my Christian Origins classes at UNC Charlotte and also for participants in our Mt Zion dig this summer.

The focus, as the title makes clear, are those final days of Jesus in Jerusalem, from his journey from Galilee to his death and burial. It is worth noting that this focus is that of our Gospels as well. Mark, for example, has sixteen chapters, but by chapter 8, just halfway through, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem for his final journey. Matthew, Luke, and John have a similar structure. In other words, to understand those final days is to understand Jesus as a whole–particularly why he was arrested and killed. Gibson shows us, in surprising ways, how the archaeological record can contribute to that central historical query.

In this review I want to concentrate on what I consider two of the most significant new contributions Gibson offers for our better understanding of Jesus and his last days and I will finish up with a few caveats and observations on the book overall.

The first has to do with the location of Jesus’ trial before the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate, the identification of the Praetorium, that is the headquarters of the governor, the “courtyard,” and more particularly, the “pavement” of the judgment seat, called lithostrotos in Greek or gabbatha in Aramaic (see John 18:28, 33; 19:9, 13, cf. Matt 27:27 and Mark 15:16). The traditional route Jesus took to the place of crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa, traced by pilgrims by the thousands on Good Friday, begins in the northeast of the city, at the Church of St Anne. Indeed this is the 1st Station of the Cross. This is based on the assumption that Jesus’ trial before Pilate was at the military barracks of the Antonio Fortress, located on a high rocky outcrop at the northwest corner of the Temple complex. Today there is a scholarly consensus that this location is incorrect, and that the Praetorium was located at Herod’s Palace, on the west side of the city. It has become clear that this magnificent palace was used by Pilate as his residence as well as the military and civic headquarters of Roman rule in Jerusalem. Gibson offers a full exposition of this correct location and why it has become preferred over the traditional site. What this means, of course, is rather earthshaking in terms of the Good Friday processions and their time-sanctified traditions.

But he goes much further in details, having excavated with Magen Broshi along the outside of the western city wall in the 1970s. There a monumental gateway was revealed with the remains of a large courtyard and intact pavement between the fortification walls. Gibson, with maps and detailed drawings, makes a compelling case that this is indeed the very spot where the governor would have had his bema or judgment seat, and he shows in detail that the language of the Gospels, particularly in John, with Pilate going inside the palace, and back out again, and the crowds gathered outside below, fits the location we can see today perfectly. In fact, the steps, dating from the Herodian period, are now exposed, leading up to the remains of the gate and the platform or pavement. CNN ran a very nice story this weekend of Gibson with correspondent Ben Wedeman, explaining his theory at the site, see “Jesus Took a Different Path.” Since Gibson first took me and my students to this site back in 2000 I have been back many times, studied it thoroughly, and I have become convinced it is indeed one of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries in the past 100 years related to the life of Jesus. The impact of Gibson’s identification is hard to overemphasize, as this would be the precise location, uncovered down to the pavement, of one of the most famous scenes in the life of Jesus, namely Pilate’s “Ecce Homo,” (“Behold the man” John 19:5) declaration. I have posted here my own reconstruction of the scene, marvelously done by the extraordinary artist, Balage Balogh for my book, The Jesus Dynasty. Gibson’s own reconstruction differs a bit from mine and has more details based on his latest research. It is amply illustrated in his book.

But there is much more. Gibson also persuasively argues that this western gateway, leading into the grounds of Herod’s palace, was indeed the famed “Essene Gate” mentioned by Jewish historian Josephus (War V.145). As one who has been convinced for years of Bargil Pixner’s location for the “Essene Gate,” on the southeast of the city, as published and popularized in Biblical Archaeology Review in an article I helped him edit, namely “Jerusalem’s Essene Gateway” (May/June, 1997), I was not an easy convert to Gibson’s view, having spent hundreds of hours over a decade with my dear late friend, Father Pixner, walking the site and studying the area together. Indeed, one finds Pixner’s location on many maps today, with or without a question mark, indicating uncertainty. I have to confess that Gibson has convinced me. But perhaps even more important, this means the so-called “Essene Quarter,” that Pixner associated with his gate likely never existed inside the city walls. What seems more likely is that the Essenes lived outside the city wall, as indicated by Josephus, and the area Pixner had identified was one of the wealthiest areas of the city, just south of Herod’s Palace, and the traditional site of David’s Tomb.

The second really significant contribution I want to highlight here is found in Gibson’s 4th chapter titled “Signs and Wonders at Bethesda and Siloam.” Gibson focuses upon the central question posed by all historians who study the life of Jesus, namely, why was Jesus killed? Why did he pose such a threat to the religious establishment? The standard consensus, that Jesus posed a “revolutionary” threat to the economic, religious, and social establishment no one would deny. But what about the specifics? In what areas, and over what issues and situations, were the enemies of Jesus willing to cross the line of tolerance and move to eliminate him? What Gibson highlights are the healing activities that Jesus carried out at the public pools of Bethesda and Siloam during the last week of his life, and their revolutionary potential among the crowded masses. It was Passover week in the year 30 CE, and hundreds of thousands of visitors had flocked to the city for the festival. Gibson skillfully reconstructs for us the mobbed scene at these large public pools, one  to the south of the Temple, the other to the north. He argues, quite persuasively in my view, that both pools functioned as sites for the mass rites of ritual water purification that were required of all visitors who were to ascend up to the Temple area for Passover. That means they were crowded and thickly populated that week with a diverse mix of the local and visiting populations. Jesus, by centering his healing activities at these strategic locations, was bound to attract the attention of those who controlled the religious affairs in Jerusalem, and he was deliberately provocative in both his activities and his pronouncements to the crowds. The large parameters of both pools have recently been clarified by archaeological work and Gibson provides photos and drawings of how they might have appeared in the time of Jesus. Gibson is convinced, and convincing I think, that not only the large crowds that Jesus drew in the Temple precincts drew the attention of the city authorities, but also his healing activities around these pools.

Gibson’s book contains much else that positively contributes to our understanding of the “last days of Jesus” from an archaeological perspective. I would mention in particular his insightful comments on Jewish burial practices, both of Lazarus and Jesus, that in my view truly break new ground (chapters 2 and 7). He updates his readers on the very latest evidence on Roman crucifixion, with new analysis on the heel-bone of the “crucified man” of Givat haMivtar, discovered in a tomb north of Jerusalem in 1968 (chapter 6). His analysis of the tomb of Jesus itself, and what it might have looked like, given our evidence from tombs found all over Jerusalem, is as insightful as it is convincing (chapter 8).

This is not to say that I find agreement with all that Gibson argues. I have my strong disagreements with his location of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus in the vicinity of the 4th century site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, even though he locates the site of the crucifixion and burial in slightly different areas than the dominant Christian shrines within the Church. I remain convinced that Jesus was crucified and temporarily buried on the Mt of Olives. I find Gibson’s closing lines of his last chapter, “Who Moved the Stone,” somewhat counterproductive in terms of what we might be able to responsibly say as historians. He writes: “The reality is that there is no historical explanation for the empty tomb, other than if we adopt a theological one, i.e., the resurrection. I leave it up to the reader to make up his own mind.” I have to disagree here. Though I freely admit our sources might never allow us to definitely state what happened that Easter weekend, I think by definition the explanation “God took Jesus bodily to heaven,” is not one that historians can responsibly entertain, as historians.

Gibson ends his book with a strong Conclusion that offers a nice summary of his main arguments in the book as a whole. Finally, there is an Excursus on the “Talpiot (Jesus) Tomb and the ‘James’ Ossuary.” It is no secret that Gibson and I have our agreements and disagreements on this subject, having both published extensive articles on the topic in Near Eastern Archaeology (Vol. 69, Nos. 3-4, Sept-Dec, 2006, pp. 118-124; 132-136), but we continue to learn from one another. Since I have written so extensively on this subject on this Blog, with the posts all archived, I will not belabor the topic in this review.

There is no doubt in my mind that the rich contents of this wonderful and engaging book will make it a standard in the field of Christian origins. It is an indispensable handbook for the scholar, and a thrilling investigative read for the non-specialist wanting to know more of those last critical days of Jesus.